When an employee told a group of 20-somethings they needed face masks to enter his fast-food restaurant, one woman fired off a stream of expletives. "Isn't this Orange County?" snapped a man in the group. "We don't have to wear masks!"
The curses came as a shock, but not really a surprise, to Nilu Patel, a certified registered nurse anesthetist at nearby University of California, Irvine Medical Center, who observed the conflict while waiting for takeout. Health care workers suffer these angry encounters daily as they move between treacherous hospital settings and their communities, where mixed messaging from politicians has muddied common-sense public health precautions.
"Health care workers are scared, but we show up to work every single day," Patel said. Wearing masks, she said, "is a very small thing to ask."
Patel administers anesthesia to patients in the operating room, and her husband is also a health care worker. They've suffered sleepless nights worrying about how to keep their two young children safe and schooled at home. The small but vocal chorus of people who view face coverings as a violation of their rights makes it all worse, she said.
That resistance to the public health advice didn't grow in a vacuum. Health care workers blame political leadership at all levels, from President Donald Trump on down, for issuing confusing and contradictory messages.
"Our leaders have not been pushing that this is something really serious," said Jewell Harris Jordan, a 47-year-old registered nurse at the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center in Oakland, California. She's distraught that some Americans see mandates for face coverings as an infringement upon their rights instead of a show of solidarity with health care workers. (Kaiser Health News produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)
"If you come into the hospital and you're sick, I'm going to take care of you," Jordan said. "But damn, you would think you would want to try to protect the people that are trying to keep you safe."
In Orange County, where Patel works, mask orders are particularly controversial. The county's chief health officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, resigned June 8 after being threatened for requiring residents to wear them in public. Three days later, county officials rescinded the requirement. On June 18, a few days after Patel visited the restaurant, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide mandate.
Meanwhile, cases and hospitalizations continue to rise in Orange County.
The county's flip-flop illustrates the national conflict over masks. When the coronavirus outbreak emerged in February, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged the public from buying masks, which were needed by health care workers. It wasn't until April that federal officials began advising most everyone to wear cloth face coverings in public.